1971 • Portsmouth, Virginia
Missy Elliott has accomplished the extraordinary. Hundreds of rap artists have made successful records, written hit songs, and produced other artists' work; some have even headed up their own record labels. Few of them, however, have been women. Rap is a male-dominated art form; the music is filled with aggressive, often violent, imagery and negative attitudes toward women. The chances of a young musician making it big in the music industry are slim in the best of circumstances, but for a woman to become hugely successful in the world of hip-hop is nothing short of phenomenal. Elliott has achieved success on her own terms: she writes, produces, and arranges her music; she controls the direction of each new album; and she has refused to play along with someone else's idea of what a female rapper's image should be. For Elliott, this strong-willed approach to her career has paid off. She has written and/or produced songs for Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé Knowles, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson. She has released five of her own albums since 1997, and each has sold upwards of one million copies. She has forged an innovative, light-hearted, sexy style that trumpets her self-confidence and willingness to take a risk. In a review of her 2003 album, This Is Not a Test!, Rob Sheffield of RollingStone.com assessed her accomplishments: "After seven years at the top, she still sounds as hungry and driven as ever, refusing to repeat past successes, pushing on to newer and weirder realms while everyone else is catching up to what she was doing five years ago."
"I don't have these lyrics where you be like, 'Wow.' But music is music, and as long as I make people want to dance, make them happy, then I don't really trip off of what other people say. I just do music."
Born Melissa Arnette Elliott in Portsmouth, Virginia, Elliott is an only child who experienced intense personal conflict as a child. Elliott was the victim of sexual abuse by an older cousin when she was eight years old, and she frequently witnessed her father physically abusing her mother. She recalled to Entertainment Weekly 's Rob Brunner: "I never wanted to go stay at my friends' houses because I always thought my father would beat my mother up or kill her or something." In spite of such traumatic events, Elliott has recalled lighter moments as a music-obsessed youngster. She remembers shutting herself in her room and pretending to be a superstar singer. She told Kevin Chappell of Ebony: "When I was four, I used to sing to my doll babies. They had rotating arms, I used to lift them up and pretend that they were clapping for me." She had little interest in schoolwork, preferring instead to listen to music, imitate her musical heroes—like Michael Jackson—in the mirror, and write songs.
Longing for escape from her painful home life, Elliott wrote letters on a daily basis to Jackson and his sister, Janet, begging them to come to her school and take her back home with them. The Jacksons never came to her rescue, but one day, when Elliott was fourteen, her mother did: Patricia Elliott packed up their things, took her daughter, and left. "My mother leaving my father changed my life," Elliott told Chappell. "It made me a stronger person." The next few years proved difficult, with Elliott and her mother struggling to make it on their own. Elliott skipped school fairly often, but she stayed out of serious trouble. Continuing her fascination with music, she wrote song lyrics all over her bedroom walls. Her mother, initially upset, eventually gave in, as Elliott explained to Brunner: "My mother didn't want to fuss about too much. She just wanted me to be happy, because I'd been through so much.... [She] wanted to make sure that I was okay. She just was like, 'Okay, put another song up there. Who cares?'"
As a teenager, Elliott joined with three other girls to form a vocal group called Sista. She graduated from high school in 1990. The following year, after a concert by the R&B band Jodeci, Elliott and the other members of Sista approached Jodeci member DeVante Swing at a hotel. They performed a few songs for him, and Swing was so impressed that he signed them on to record for his production company. Sista recorded an album, but the group disbanded once the girls learned that the label, Elektra Records, was not prepared to release it. By that time Elliott had made several key connections in the recording industry. She formed a producing/songwriting team with her childhood friend Timbaland (1971–), with Elliott writing the songs and Timbaland producing the recordings. They contributed songs to the albums of numerous artists, including four singles on One in a Million, a CD by the late singer Aaliyah (1979–2001). Elliott also contributed vocals to other artists' tracks, including a fateful turn on Gina Thompson's 1996 song "The Things That You Do." Sylvia Rhone, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Elektra Records, heard Elliott's contribution to the song and recognized a special quality about the guest singer. As Rhone told Brunner in Entertainment Weekly, "You just see it, you hear it, and you know that it says 'superstar.' It wasn't like we had to nurture or push. She could sing, she could rhyme, she could write, and she had a sense of what she wanted imagewise even back then." Rhone signed Elliott to a deal enabling her to write and produce songs. Elliott eventually had a contract to create her own album and to run her own record label, Gold Mind.
Like Missy Elliott, Eve Jihan Jeffers, better known to her fans simply as Eve, has defied convention with her career as a rapper. Through a combination of talent, luck, and determination, Eve has reached superstar status in a field where women have a hard time being taken seriously.
Born on November 10, 1978, Eve grew up in the low-income housing projects of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She knew she wanted to be a performer from an early age and joined an all-girl singing group with some friends. At age thirteen she decided she wanted to be a rapper, and she performed at local talent shows whenever possible. After graduating from high school, Eve met the influential rapper/producer Dr. Dre (1965–), who signed her to a record deal with his label Aftermath. She moved to California for a time, working on writing and recording, but when the label dropped her, she returned to Philadelphia. She met rapper DMX, who introduced her to the Ruff Ryders, a group of rappers and producers in New York. Impressed by her spontaneous audition, the Ruff Ryders invited Eve to be their first female member. After an intense period of writing and rapping with the Ruff Ryders—what she called "boot camp" in a Newsweek article—Eve appeared on the group's successful compilation CD Ryde or Die Vol. 1. She also scored high-profile guest spots on songs with the Roots and with Blackstreet.
Her success with others prompted Eve to break out on her own, and she released her first solo album, Let There Be Eve ... Ruff Ryders' First Lady, in 1999. While the album bore the stamp of its Ruff Ryder producers, it also proudly displayed Eve's personality. Eve was not afraid to be sexy and feminine, but, unlike many of her fellow female hip-hoppers, she relied more on her talent than on her appearance to sell records. As explained by Lorraine Ali of Newsweek, Eve plays "as tough as the boys, but with a stealthy female elegance. She walks the fine line between the empowering, old-school style of Queen Latifah and the trashy titillation of Lil' Kim." The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart—an extraordinary accomplishment for a female rapper—and sold two million copies.
Eve followed up her debut with Scorpion in 2001. While critics had mixed reactions to the album, her fans snapped it up. The single "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," a duet with No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, was a huge success, winning an MTV Video Music Award in 2001 and a Grammy Award in 2002. On her third album, 2002's Eve-olution, Eve branched out, singing rather than rapping on several tracks. She cited reggae and rock as influences on that album, expressing a distaste for the emphasis on drugs and violence in rap.
Eve showed fans another side of herself when she appeared in the Vin Diesel action movie XXX and in fellow rapper Ice Cube's Barbershop in 2002. She later earned her own sitcom on UPN, a show called Eve, which stars the rapper as a fashion designer looking for love. While critics dismissed the show, fans felt otherwise, and the ratings for the first season were solid. Eve juggled her music career, television show, and additional movies, returning for the sequel Barbershop 2 and filming The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon and a comedy called The Cookout, all 2004 releases. Eve has also become famous for her fashion sense, and in the fall of 2003 she rolled out her own line of women's sportswear called Fetish.
In 1997 Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, the budding rap star, released her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, with guest spots by rappers Busta Rhymes, Lil' Kim, and Da Brat. Looking back on the album a few years later, Steve Huey of All Music Guide proclaimed that Supa Dupa Fly was "arguably the most influential album ever released by a female hip-hop artist." With Timbaland contributing his innovative producing skills, Elliott created a CD that crossed back and forth between genres, as expressed in a review at RollingStone.com: "The production ... marries hip-hop beats and succulent R&B with a cool, uncluttered glaze that flatters the rhythms instead of flattening them." Elliott showcased her versatility on this album as on those that followed, cowriting songs, singing, and rapping in her distinctive lowkey, humorous style. Driven by the success of the single "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," the album earned a nomination for a Grammy Award and found a huge audience as well, earning platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for sales of at least one million units.
Elliott followed up her successful debut with Da Real World in 1999, an album boasting such hit singles as "She's a B***h" and "Hot Boyz." On the former track Elliott expresses her frustration that men can stand up for themselves and be respected while women who behave in assertive ways are described in nasty terms. In the song, she redefines the word in the title to refer to a strong woman. During 2000 Elliott spent less time in the studio and more time focusing on the work of new artists whose albums would be released on her Gold Mind label. She returned in 2001 with the release of Miss E...So Addictive, which includes the breakout singles "Get Ur Freak On" and "Scream a.k.a. Itchin'," both of which earned Elliott Grammy Awards for best female solo rap performance. The album features guest performances by a number of high-profile R&B and rap artists, including Jay-Z, Ludacris, Eve, Redman and Method Man, and Ginuwine.
In late 2001, Elliott paid a visit to her doctor, who told her she had high blood pressure. He advised that, if she wanted to live long enough to achieve all of her goals and enjoy her wealth into retirement age, she had better lose weight. Elliott, then thirty years old, took his advice to heart and began a strict regimen of eating healthy, low-sodium foods, drinking plenty of water, and exercising. Elliott began working out up to four times a day, using the treadmill, kickboxing, and lifting weights. After a few months, she had lost more than seventy pounds and lowered her blood pressure. Her physical transformation, as well as her continuously evolving musical style, are referred to in the title of her 2002 album Under Construction. Featuring the hits "Work It" and "Gossip Folks," the album is a nostalgic take on old-school rap, paying tribute to and sampling groundbreaking tracks of the genre. Elliott explained the thinking behind the album to Brunner in Entertainment Weekly: "For the new generation, it's gonna sound like something new. For the old generation, it's gonna be a memory. It works both ways." The album, achieving double platinum status with sales of over two million copies, impressed both fans and critics, including Gavin Edwards of RollingStone.com, who stated in his review of Under Construction: "It's hard to remember what the world was like before Missy 'Misdemeanor' Elliott came along, but historical records indicate that it was a lot more boring." Elliott went on to win her third Grammy Award in the category of best female rap solo performance for "Work It."
Elliott released her fifth album, This Is Not a Test!, in late 2003. In keeping with her other albums, Elliott showcases the work of several high-powered guests, including Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, R. Kelly, Nelly, and Beenie Man. Some critics described the album as containing too much filler and too few groundbreaking Elliott/Timbaland collaborations, but others, while acknowledging the release is less than perfect, suggest that even a flawed album by Missy Elliott stands above those of most of the hip-hop crowd. Sheffield concluded his review of this CD at RollingStone.com by saying, "Why anybody would choose to spend their life without a copy of This Is Not a Test! is a mystery."
During 2004 the television network UPN announced the development of a reality series called The Missy Elliott Project, which would air in the middle of the 2004–2005 season. Executive produced by and starring Elliott, the show will feature a crew of aspiring hip-hop artists competing against each other in such categories as singing, rapping, and dancing. Elliott will help choose the winner, who will be offered a record deal with her Gold Mind label.
Known for her individualistic fashion sense, Elliott has added to her substantial earnings by endorsing such products as Sprite, Gap corduroy jeans—in commercials with pop superstar Madonna—and Adidas athletic wear. In 2004 she signed with Adidas to create her own line of athletic gear, called Respect M.E. (both a motto and a play on her initials), which includes sneakers, track suits, T-shirts, and hooded sweatshirts. Elliott does not exactly hide the abundant wealth she has attained from such deals as well as from sales of her albums and concert tickets. She possesses several residences, including a home in New Jersey, a lavish condominium near Miami, and a mansion built for her mother in Virginia Beach. Her car collection includes a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, and a Hummer. While Elliott acknowledges the pleasures of being rich, she also speaks often of how thankful she is for the life she leads and of how important it is for musicians to invest their money wisely rather than blowing it all on an outlandish lifestyle. She has displayed her desire to make a difference in the world by becoming the spokesperson for Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping young people avoid abusive relationships and counseling those who have been victims of domestic violence. In all that she has done, Elliott has displayed an unwavering sense of self. As she told Chappell, "I'm not a follower. I'm not a copycat. I'm an original."
Ali, Lorraine. "Diamond in the Ruff." Newsweek (March 12, 2001): p. 70.
Brunner, Rob. "Missy Elliott." Entertainment Weekly (November 22, 2002): p. 32.
Chappell, Kevin. "Eve and Missy Elliott: Taking Rap to a Whole New Level." Ebony (August 2001): p. 68.
Lynch, Jason. "Missy Universe." People (January 20, 2003): p. 77.
"The Complete Missy Elliott." RollingStone.com. http://www.rollingstone.com/?searchtype+RSArtist&query+missy%20elliott (accessed August 1, 2004).
"Missy Elliott." All Music Guide. http://www.allmusic.com (accessed on June 7, 2004).